A look at efforts to build lasting routes in Whites, Adks
By Mike Lynch
Ally Scholtz stood on a ledge, looking out at the Crawford Path and Presidential Range in the direction of New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, the Northeast’s highest peak at 6,288-feet.
She had just hiked the trail up 4,310-foot Mount Pierce, a route she had helped improve just a few years before.
The Crawford Path is a legendary trail that draws hikers from around the world because of its views and iconic ending at Washington. Built in 1812 by pioneers Abel and Ethan Crawford to be a horse path, the 8.5-mile route starts in the Crawford Notch, across the road from the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Highland Center.
It also holds the distinction of being the oldest continuously maintained hiking trail in North America.
So it was appropriate that it was the site of a new way to approach trail maintenance projects in the White Mountains.
In 2018 and 2019, crews from across the Whites worked together to repair this iconic path. The large-scale project was designed to coincide with the White Mountain National Forest’s centennial celebration in 2018 and the trail’s bicentennial in 2019.
Three hundred trail crew members, 20-plus organizations and 11 trail squads worked on the 36-week project in the first year alone.
“This project was a way to look back at the past 100 to 200 years but also look forward to the next hundred to 200 years,” said Cristin Bailey, a National Forest Trails Manager who supervised the Crawford project, in an American Trails webinar.
Now a field supervisor for the White Mountain Trail Collective, Scholtz was one of those trail crew workers involved in the project, at the time employed by Appalachian Mountain Club.
On her way up Mount Pierce that late August day, she pointed out sections of trail that had been repaired.
“This section here was particularly muddy and slick and a lot of people were tiptoeing around the edges of the trail, so the trail started getting really wide and blown out,” said Scholtz, describing a common problem that occurs throughout the Whites and also on popular Adirondack trails.
To remedy this problem, Scholtz and her fellow trail crew workers raised the tread with crushed stone and improved the drainage.
She also talked about the collaborative effort that it took to work on such a large project and a new approach that was started during it. The maintenance project provided an opportunity to promote her current employer, then a fledgling organization, the White Mountain Trail Collective, and a new collaborative way of addressing trail work in the Whites.
“Trail maintenance is fragmented. We have a bunch of organizations, but there was just no coordinated effort,” said Melanie Luce, collective executive director in an American Trails webinar. “A lot of people were operating in that lone wolf or siloed mentality.”
The collective started in 2017 and became a nonprofit in 2019, leading the way on the Crawford Path that year. The group was born out of conversations after Tropical Storm Irene struck in 2011 and exacerbated backcountry infrastructure problems, said National Forest Trails Manager Cristin Bailey, who supervised the first year of the Crawford project.
Not only was there a need to repair the Crawford Path, but countless other trails in the region needed attention. Forest service staff have estimated $35 million in trail maintenance needed in the region.
“Everybody kind of agreed, we need to make some changes,” Bailey said.
What they came up with was the trail collective to provide administrative, planning, and funding to trail maintenance organizations stretched thin. The collective may manage a particular project for an organization that doesn’t have that capacity or they might provide training and tools. They do environmental surveys and mapping studies. It also provides field supervision, training and helps facilitate collaboration and communication between groups.
“We support and add capacity to those organizations, so that they can do what they do best, which is maintain trails,” Luce said.
It works directly with the state and federal agencies, other nonprofits and volunteer organizations using a philosophy of coming together to solve complex problems.
“Public land managers, especially the forest service, they don’t have the administrative capacity to support the vast amount of trails infrastructure that they have in their region,” said Matt Moore, trails supervisor with Appalachian Mountain Club. “And the White Mountain Trail Collective was born to help bear that capacity to support more projects.”
A new standard in the Adirondacks
Like trails in the Whites, many older and popular Adirondack trails were not properly designed, following routes used by settlers and guides more than a century ago.
As a result, they suffer from erosion and widening, as hikers avoid wet and difficult sections. In recent years, with increased use, the problems have worsened.
The trail up Cascade Mountain from Route 73, with many rutted, muddy and braided areas, is an example. A few years ago, the state Department of Environmental Conservation decided to reroute the trail, starting it at the Olympic Sporting Complex outside Lake Placid.
In addition, the agency determined it needed an alternative option for Cascade hikers, so they built a new trail up Mount Van Hoevenberg.
But providing an alternative option for High Peaks hikers wasn’t the only goal. The agency wanted to set a new standard for sustainable trail building, using designs that could be employed elsewhere.
Instead of following a steep and shorter route up the mountain, the new Mount Van Hoevenberg trail was built across the hillside with an average slope of 10% and a maximum of 15%. That’s a big difference compared to the historic fall-line trails.
Designers used special care to protect the trails and hikers, said Tate Connor, a High Peaks forester. The hillside trail was built to shed water naturally and with user-friendly stone staircases. A goal was to avoid hikers leaving the trail, which can cause edges to erode and spread.
“This trail design isn’t meant to be easier. It’s just meant to allow people to hike, and they can look around in the forest. They are not worried about the tripping hazards.”— Tate Connor, High Peaks forester
Connor said hikers often avoid many of the stone staircases that were built on fall-line trails because the risers between the steps are too big. People steer clear of steps with more than an 8-inch rise, so stones with 7-inch rises were used.
Plus, builders in the past made staircases with rocks that were rounded and slippery in wet and icy weather. The Van Hoevenberg crews selected rocks that were the right size and shapes.
But don’t expect the new trail to become the norm.
“To build every trail in the Adirondacks to this standard right now, we clearly do not have the capacity to do that,” said DEC Region 5 Regional Forester Rob Daley. “And I would say that we really don’t need to build every trail in the Adirondacks to this standard now. We would certainly incorporate principles of sustainable design. That’s what we want to do going forward. That is what we plan to do.”
This year, the Adirondack Explorer reporting team created a series focused on ideas for managing high visitor volume to some of the more popular attractions – much like what is facing some parts of the Adirondacks.